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Maine State Police illegally collecting data on gun buyers, other residents, lawsuit claims

A gun store. (Andrew/Flickr)

A division of the Maine State Police illegally gathered and handled personal data about Mainers, according to an employment discrimination lawsuit filed in federal court by a state trooper.

George Loder, 50, of Scarborough is suing the Maine Intelligence Analysis Center, and its supervisors, claiming he was demoted after he told his bosses that the center was collecting and maintaining data illegally, including information about people who had applied to buy guns from firearms dealers, those who legally protested and those who worked at a Maine international camp for Israeli and Arab teens. The center is responsible for sharing information with other law enforcement agencies.

The complaint does not say with which agencies the center may have shared the information other than the state police. It also does not say when the center began collecting it. Loder expressed his concerns to supervisors in November 2017.

Loder alleges that staff at the center illegally gathered and kept information gleaned from social media about people who legally protested in September 2018 against Central Maine Power Co.’s proposed transmission corridor stretching from the Quebec border to Lewiston.

State police maintain a database that can be searched to determine if a person is prohibited from purchasing a gun. Applications to purchase firearms are supposed to be destroyed after the sale is approved but the center stored that information in the database, the suit claims.

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In another instance, the center allegedly stored information obtained from license plate scanners in Portland and other cities from vehicles that made frequent trips to New York City or towns in Massachusetts considered to be sources of drugs for dealers in Maine, longer than the 21 days it can legally do so under state law.

“The information is mined from the license plate data of the other agencies by computer without any pre-existing suspicion of criminal activity,” the complaint said.

It also claims the center collected information on counselors and staff at Seeds of Peace, a summer camp in Otisfield created in 1993 when the late foreign news correspondent John Wallach brought a group of Israeli and Arab teens together. It has since expanded to focus on teenagers living in the U.S.

Data collection on the camp’s employees ended in May 2018, the complaint said.

Eric Kapanga of Seeds of Peace said Wednesday that since 2002 state police have conducted routine criminal background and sex-offender status checks on applicants seeking to be counselors and provides security at the camp.

“Any information beyond criminal history or sex offender status was not communicated to Seeds of Peace at any point, and we have no knowledge of the allegations in this complaint,” he said.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, alleges that the state police violated the Whistleblower Protection Act and illegally retaliated against him. It also names Col. John Cote, the head of the state police, which oversees the center, and supervisors Lt. Scott Ireland and Sgt. Michael Johnston.

Loder filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission and received a right-to-sue letter before the agency was able to investigate and issue its initial findings.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine called for investigation into the claims. Zachary Heiden, the group’s legal director, said Wednesday that the organization “has been sounding the alarm” about the center since its inception.

“The Department of Public Safety should conduct an internal investigation and should publish the results; the governor should appoint an independent body to investigate the allegations; and the Maine Legislature should exercise its oversight responsibility,” he said. “These are incredibly serious allegations, with implications for the fundamental rights of all Mainers, and they demand a serious response.”

Loder is seeking unspecified damages and asking that the court order the center to cease its alleged illegal activities. He did not immediately return a request for comment on Wednesday. His attorney, Cynthia Dill of Portland, declined to comment.

Stephen McCausland, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Public Safety, referred a request for comment on the lawsuit to the Maine attorney general’s office, which disputed the allegations. A spokesperson said the office will be “responding accordingly in court.”

The Maine Intelligence Analysis Center was created in late 2006 by executive order to ensure that information collected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is shared between federal, state, county, local and tribal authorities. It is funded, in part, with federal grants and six civilian analyst positions are funded entirely through federal grants, according to the complaint.

“By accepting federal funds, the MIAC is bound to comply with federal law, including the Privacy Act [and] other related statutes,” the complaint said.

Loder was first hired by the Maine State Police in 1994. In early 2014, he was assigned to work with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, but Loder reported to the center’s supervisor for administrative purposes, such as payroll and state-required training, and to the FBI supervisor for operational purposes.

Three years later, he first expressed concern about activities at the center when Johnston took over as supervisor and gave all state police personnel direct access to Maine Drug Enforcement Agency intelligence files, many of which included the identities of active confidential informants.

“Believing these disclosures were made in error and violation of the law, Loder called Sgt. Johnston and expressed his concern that such disclosures were illegal,” the complaint alleged. “Johnston became annoyed and stated, ‘They (confidential informants) chose to cooperate with the police.’”

Once Johnston began supervising the center, he allegedly ordered Loder to participate in a weekly conference call and share information about ongoing FBI investigations, which Loder claimed was against FBI policy.

On May 15, 2018, Loder was reassigned from working with the FBI in Portland to a desk job in Augusta working for the center overseeing its database, two hours from his home in Scarborough, the complaint said. Loder asked for a lateral transfer to the major crimes unit but was told he would have to interview for the position, which allegedly goes against internal state police policy.

“Loder told Ireland and Johnston if his only option was to participate in the MIAC’s illegal activities or face progressive discipline, then they were forcing him out of the state police and would force him to file a grievance,” the complaint said.

He took a medical leave and returned to the state police as a trooper.

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© 2020 the Bangor Daily News